Sunday, 24 October 2010

A day at the races, Albany-style

New York state has been trying to install video slots at the Aqueduct Raceway near JFK airport for nearly a decade, gambling now being the default strategy for budget shortfalls as ours careen towards a California-like debacle. The state will get several hundred million in upfront fees from the franchise holder, but the saga of how we got to this point has been a classic lesson on Albany dysfunction.

I just finished reading the state Inspector General’s 316-page report on the chaotic bidding/lobbying war to win the juicy contract, and I don’t recommend the document to anyone suffering from melancholy or needing to reinforce his faith in bipeds to get up in the morning. The ‘process’ was a joke from start to finish, and the venality of the main players is outstripped only by their incompetence.

To understand how New York state (as distinguished from the city of the same name) works, all you need to know is the phrase ‘three men in a room’. Because of the perverse and blatantly undemocratic nature of the state government, the governor and the respective heads of the state senate and the assembly basically decide on everything, and the rest is window-dressing. Politicians regularly vow to effect some sort of reform, and voters would like to take pitchforks to the place. But nothing happens, and the state has competed with Louisiana for the title of most corrupt/least operative in the United States for a hundred years.

Contract bidding is ostensibly governed by a procurement system with some safeguards, but in this case former governor Eliot (‘I like high-price hookers in thigh boots’) Spitzer agreed that the video terminals franchise—the juiciest in state history with the potential to generate hundreds of millions in profits—was to use the Three Guys tradition. The fact that this non-procedure was written into statute, giving all three a veto, is particularly incredible given that we are talking about the gambling business for chrissake.

It was downhill from there. No one was in charge, no criteria were established, and at the opening whistle a free-for-all ensued with moneybags lobbyists and influence peddlers galore descending on anyone with a remote chance to affect the outcome, right down to the community board president in the Queens neighborhood that includes the racetrack.

Meanwhile, two of the three ‘men in a room’ changed: Spitzer was forced to resign and Joe Bruno, the long-time Republican Senate president, was indicted on corruption charges. The Democrats then won the Senate and went to war internally, resulting in a further rotation in the cast of characters. People at the state lottery board tried to establish ground rules, but staff working for our moronically incompetent interim governor promptly undermined them.

In January one of the least credible bidders, a consortium cobbled together by a guy with legal troubles in Australia (including bankruptcy no less), was actually awarded the franchise and then promptly disqualified, triggering the Inspector General’s investigation.
Not to left behind in this tale of snakery, long-time czar of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, a.k.a. the Rasputin of Albany, played his usual passive-aggressive game, pretended to have no position, let the other two show their hands, and then denounced the decision that he could have simply blocked by voting no. Silver, as usual, comes out on top while his counterparts in the Senate are discredited by their crude manipulation of the process and could face charges.

The release of the report is bad timing for the Democrats trying to get back in the saddle with a new governor, Andrew Cuomo, and save their senate majority. But the hit taken by the New York City-based Democratic machine already is substantial. It does not augur well for the idea that the problem with Albany was the venal Republicans, who are notorious for doing the same sort of thing but more cleverly.

Since hope spring eternal, we can fantasize that Cuomo might bring some expertise and probity to the bicameral house of horrors. Of course, there is no reason to think the next crop of solons will magically molt into honest brokers of the public interest, but the Spanish expression ‘Opportunity makes the thief’ is a reminder that well constructed administrative systems can go a long way to nudging the weak and amoral towards less destructive ways of milking their good fortune.

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